There is a growing crisis in dealing with the growing cost of maintaining old warships as museums and tourist attractions. Most of these vessels are in the water and literally rusting away. Many are now in need of major refurbishment, which can cost over $100 million for a carrier or battleship. Even smaller ships (cruisers, destroyers, and submarines) can require over $20 million to put back into shape to just sit in the water, receive visitors, and not sink or fall apart the next time a major storm hits. Most of the largest of these museum ships are American, largely because the U.S. has had the largest fleet in the world for nearly a century.
The end of World War II and the Cold War put a lot of warships out of work. Most were broken up for scrap or sunk using weapons as a form of training. But increasingly over the years many were donated by the U.S. Navy for use as museum ships. Most of these were smaller ships, like PT Boats or patrol boats. A small seaside town could afford to maintain these small craft with local volunteers and some cash donations. But many cities sought to obtain large ships. This led to five aircraft carriers (USS Hornet, Intrepid, Lexington, Midway, and Yorktown) and ten battleships (USS Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, New Jersey, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin) becoming impressive and very expensive to maintain museum ships. The Arizona was sunk at Pearl Harbor during the infamous 1941 Japanese sneak attack and a museum and memorial built around the largely submerged vessel. The other carriers and battleships are tied up at a pier and visitors allowed to view many parts of the ship.
There are also over fifty destroyers, cruisers, amphibious ships, and submarines serving as museum ships. More are on the way, if the cost of maintaining current museum ships does not scare off everyone. The World War II museum ships are all up for major refurbishment and the few that have had it have demonstrated that this sort of thing is very expensive.
Three years ago the U.S. Navy retired its last non-nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy. The navy offered the ship to any government or non-profit organization that wants to maintain it as a museum ship. The navy is still waiting for a response. Entering service in 1968, the Kennedy is 321 meters (1052 feet) long and displaces 82,000 tons. It would be the largest museum ship ever. The ship is currently docked in Philadelphia and there is much enthusiasm in Boston for taking the carrier, named after a native son, and establishing a museum ship. The big problem, for whoever takes the ship, is money. That's lots of money, as in hundreds of millions to outfit the ship as a museum and maintain it.
The navy has long been willing to donate old ships to groups that were willing to maintain the retired vessels as museum ships. But the navy attaches some very expensive strings. That is, the navy expects the ship to be kept in decent shape. This is a problem with many old metal ships, as they rust. And eventually they rust so much that the hull is breached and ultimately will collapse. The navy has not yet repossessed any museum ships but a growing number of these ships are deteriorating. Refurbishment is so expensive that some sponsoring groups are considering letting the navy have the ship back.
For example the World War II era Essex class carrier USS Intrepid, in New York City, returned to its display berth in 2009, after a two year refurbishment costing $120 million. The entire hull was examined, in dry dock, for decay and over a hundred square meters (nearly a thousand square feet) of hull had to be replaced. A sister ship of the Intrepid, the Yorktown, requires a similar refurbishment. Since 1975, the Yorktown has been on display in Charleston, South Carolina, with several other museum ships. The Yorktown, which entered service four months before the Intrepid, needs the same kind of work. The navy is insisting on it, with the alternatives being sending the ship to the breakers or a lawsuit. The naval museum in South Carolina is in a bad situation, as $120 million is hard to find, even when the economy (and wealthy donors) are doing well. The big donors are much harder to find these days.
Another popular option is to use old ships for target practice. For example most of the 30 decommissioned Spruance class destroyers were used for target practice. Some old warships are sunk closer to the shore, to provide reefs for fish and scuba divers. Running a SINKEX (sinking exercise) enables the navy to test some theories on how vulnerable, or invulnerable, modern warships are. But environmentalists oppose these two methods as well because it puts toxic materials into the ocean.
Going to the breakers is now seen as viable because of more efficient breaking techniques and higher prices for recycled metals. For the moment anyway.